Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The place of the skull

I figure Hallowe'en is a good day to talk about skulls. I did quite a series of posts about rosaries and skulls last year -- you can look them up in the September and October 2005 archives if you're interested. But I promise just the one post this time.

I find that I do a certain amount of debunking of myths on this blog, and I've run across one myth about skulls that I'd like to mention. Every so often someone on eBay discovers that the rosary they have to sell has a crucifix with a skull at the base, like this one:

Not uncommonly, the seller gets very excited because they think this is a rare thing or an indication of great age -- after all, they have never seen one like this. They may also think it's an indication that the rosary was owned by a priest or nun, since the idea of nuns meditating on skulls, graves, etc. (and the imminence of death) has lingered from Victorian "nun horror" literature right up to the present.

(There's a whole genre of Victorian horror literature, with titles like "The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk," about torture, sex, and slavery supposedly going on in convents. The books are generally so bad they're laughable, though occasionally one runs across an uninformed reader who actually believes they're true.)

At any rate, crucifixes that show a skull at the base are actually not all that rare, and neither are they confined to rosaries made for nuns. I think they're somewhat more common in Hispanic cultures now, but it's something that was quite fashionable in many parts of Europe during the Renaissance. As I went into some detail last year about the popularity of skull imagery in general, I won't repeat myself here, but they show up in a surprising number of places.

A skull at the base of a crucifix, however, bears a special message. This is based on a piece of common European folklore about the Crucifixion. Legend says that the place where Adam died and was buried in the Garden of Eden later became the hill where Christ was crucified. (Modern geographers think that if there were actual places that inspired the Garden of Eden, they were elsewhere, but thus goes the legend.)

Further, according to the legend, the Cross on which Jesus was crucified was actually made from the wood of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden (therefore, presumably, an apple tree, if you think the fruit Adam and Eve ate was an apple).

So a skull at the base of the Crucifix represents the skull of Adam. Since Jesus, who redeemed humanity, is sometimes seen as the "new Adam" -- reversing the Fall, the Redemption gave humanity a fresh start of sorts -- it's entirely appropriate to pair him with the "old Adam" in this way.

And in case anyone didn't learn this in Sunday School, the name of the hill, Golgotha, where Christ was crucified, actually does mean "place of the skull."

There's a very clear skull and crossbones is at the foot of this gold enameled cross from the 16th or early 17th, which I think I've referred to on this blog before:


I must admit that the accidents of painting and molding make this skull look rather like a walrus, close up. But as you'll see below, the skulls -- in much the same way as angels carved on gravestones -- can become simpler, more stylized and eventually quite abstract looking. In the crucifix below, the jaws of the skull are simply represented by three white dots, standing for "teeth":


And here, the "skull" has become just a roundish flat piece of metal with a few slashes cut into it:


You can see a bit more detail on some similar pieces at the Rosary Workshop Museum page on older European crucifixes.

Rosary Workshop, by the way, has added a lot more material and done considerably more editing on their "museum" site in the last couple of years, making it much more solid and better documented. I do still see minor typos on a fairly regular basis, and some incorrect information that has not yet been checked or removed (such as the unfortunate"knock on wood" story -- language historians point out that it contradicts a number of known facts). But on the whole it's a great improvement.

Posts in this series:

Death's head devotions
Skully bits
Skulls: the inside story
Skulls: the inside story, part 2
Skulls: the inside story, part 3
Voldemort, part 2
A skull of one's own
More living color